Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

When the issue of balancing the budget by raising taxes reared its ugly head recently, the nation once again saw the contro­versy and bitterness the sub­ject ignites. On Capitol Hill familiar questions were fiercely debated. Who should close the revenue gap, the wealthy or the working class? Should taxes be increased on ciga­rettes, gasoline, or liquor? Nearly two hundred years ago the Congress levied a tax on domestic distilled spirits in order to satisfy debts lingering from the Revolutionary War. Whom did they choose to pay this tax? Not the affluent landed gentry nor the prosper­ous commercial interests of the East, but the western farmers who needed to convert their grain crops to whiskey, a com­modity that was practical to transport over the rugged mountains to eastern markets.

During this chaotic time of political soul searching, it was only natural that protests should arise against a seem­ingly class-biased form of taxation. The Whiskey Rebel­lion culminated in the largest armed confrontation between Americans that would take place between the American Revolution and the Civil War. Although few were killed during the confrontation, the fact that the fledgling, idealis­tic nation was brought to the brink of civil war illustrates the importance of the taxation issue in American politics.

Farmers of western Pennsyl­vania decided that the laws of the nation had become too repressive and, as a result, the Whiskey Rebellion erupted in the summer of 1794, three years after the despised excise law had been passed. Con­gress had been petitioned for the law’s repeal, and excise collectors or their associates had been tarred and feathered, but all with little effect. When a federal marshal appeared with writs ordering non­complying distillers to appear in the United States Court in Philadelphia, it was simply too much to bear. The alleged murder of a protester by the Inspector of Revenue precipi­tated the armed revolt. Al­though the insurrection lasted only about six weeks, it was a tense period for the nation, which teetered on the brink of civil war.

Although ten years had passed since the conclusion of the American Revolution, the young nation still had not yet decided what the proper roles of government and people should be, including the re­sponsibilities of congressional representatives to their constit­uents and the limits of Ameri­cans’ rights as citizens. Many leaders of the American Revo­lution had come to realize that a centralized government was needed to effectively raise taxes and armies in order to protect the liberties the people had gained. They believed that the wartime government, a loose confederation, would fall prey to enemies within and without, and their efforts to correct the situation prompted the United States Constitution of 1787. On the other hand, individuals, fearing that the power given to a centralized national government would prove to be oppressive and destructive of citizens’ liber­ties, formed the Antifederalist party and worked to amend the Constitution. Although effective in bringing about the Bill of Rights – added to the Constitution in 1791-they had further concerns about the direction of national govern­ment.

A unique combination of circumstances and issues made western Pennsylvania ripe for insurrection. Sympa­thy for the French swelled in America from the outset of the revolution which began in France in 1789. American friends of liberty not only drank toasts to their comrades at political and military gather­ings, but also raised money and provided goods for the relief of the French. Dutch traveler Theophile Cazenove noted seeing high poles topped with liberty bonnets and young boys with tri­colored French ribbons in their hats during his journey in 1794 through Pennsylvania and New Jersey. French Ambassa­dor Edmund Genet arrived in 1793 to recruit volunteers to aid his nation’s cause, but President Washington viewed his presence as part of an international scheme against order. Washington feared the contagion would spread to the West where the situation was already tense because of pri­vate, democratic secret societies.

Another issue of this turbu­lent period was the defense of the frontiers. In western Penn­sylvania sporadic Indian at­tacks occurred into the 1790s. Gen. Josiah Harmar’s expedi­tion against the Ohio Indians in 1790 met with defeat, and Gen. Arthur St. Clair’s ill-clad and ill-prepared force suffered an even worse defeat in 1791. These grave losses not only made frontier settlers uneasy, but piqued British interest in inciting unrest on the Ameri­can frontiers. Finally, Gen. Anthony Wayne’s forces de­feated the Indians at the Battle of Fallen Timbers in August 1794, crushing the Indian threat to western Pennsylva­nia. (In each of these in­stances, the army was comprised of less than fifteen hundred men that had taken months to assemble, but more than twelve thousand troops were raised in only six weeks to put down the Whiskey Rebellion.)

Economic dissatisfaction in the West went well beyond the Whiskey Excise. The promises of equality and freedom, for which they had courageously fought during the Revolution­ary War seemed elusive. East­ern speculators appeared to possess preferential means to acquire the best land in the region. It became increasingly harder during the 1790s for the average settler to own land, although ownership was one of the reasons settlers were willing to suffer the hardships of frontier life. Early settlers also staunchly believed that theirs was a separate region from the East. Inhabitants west of the Alleghenies were not drawn naturally to Phila­delphia for trade but, instead, looked to the Ohio and Missis­sippi rivers for commerce. In 1776, this region claimed by both Pennsylvania and Vir­ginia petitioned Congress for independence from both. Although the state of “West­sylvania” which they sought would not be created, the issue would come alive again­ – nearly two decades later – in 1794.

To those most concerned, the federal government ap­peared unresponsive to the Westerners’ needs. It was slow to bring the Indian wars to a close and to force the British to relinquish their forts in the Northwest. It also seemed passive in negotiating with Spain to open the Mississippi River for commerce, the only logical avenue of trade for settlers west of the Alleghe­nies. Despite their representa­tion in Congress, the pioneers’ interests were neglected or ignored. This was dramatically illustrated by the passage of the excise tax, which seemed to be directed at those who depended on the manufacture of whiskey for a livelihood and those who could least afford to pay it.

A melding of settlers with distinct religious beliefs, cul­tural ties, and political ideals contributed to the Whiskey Rebellion. Most of the popula­tion was Anglo, including English, Welsh, Irish, and Scotch-Irish, but there were other ethnic groups, the most predominant of which were German and Swiss. Whatever their ethnic background, op­portunities for cheap land and the freedom to live as they saw fit were the driving forces compelling these stalwart settlers to risk the arduous journey over the mountains. Historian Henry Adams char­acterized post-Revolutionary Pennsylvania as “the only true democratic community then existing in the Eastern states.” Albert Gallatin, a native of Switzerland, was equally im­pressed by the egalitarian character of Pennsylvania when he wrote, ” … from the suburbs of Philadelphia to the banks of the Ohio I do not know a single family that has extensive influence.”

About one third of the inhabitants were of Scotch­-Irish ancestry. Outspoken about their rights and beliefs, these proud individualists were adherents of Calvinistic dissent. The temperance movement had not yet begun, and they had no qualms about drinking alcohol. They also believed that they were mor­ally obligated to protest an unfair tax. Several rebels were prominent members or mem­bers in good standing of the Presbyterian church. However, one prominent Presbyterian clergyman, the Rev. John McMillan, although opposed to the excise, vehemently objected to violence and refused to allow the disaf­fected to partake of commu­nion. Two Baptist ministers, David Philips and John Cor­bley, actively participated in the Whiskey Rebellion. Philips attended both the first and second meeting of excise peti­tioners at Pittsburgh, while Corbley, arrested for state­ments made at Parkinson’s Ferry, was one of those taken to Philadelphia and jailed. Germans of different denomi­nations and sects were in­volved in the protests as well. Noted centers of German unrest were located in and around Bedford, in the Berlin area of what became Somerset County, in the German Town­ship area of Fayette County, and in Hempfield Township, Westmoreland County.

Herman Husband, the most influential religious personage of the rebellion, arrived in the area, which eventually became Somerset County, after being outlawed in North Carolina for his role in the War of the Regu­lation in 1771 and 1772. Hus­band, “the Thomas Paine of the Whiskey Rebellion,” pos­sessed the ability to convert his religious zeal and fervent political expectations into inspiring and motivating pam­phlets. Widely known as a religious fanatic, while labeled a lunatic by others, he styled himself a prophet of the New Jerusalem. The Westerners’ role in his millennium was to remove the tyrannical federal­ist government that conspired to cheat the people of their rights gained during the Revo­lution. Through his pam­phlets, Husband was able to synthesize the western tradi­tion of rebelliousness and the promise of change or revolu­tion with an expectation of a more perfect world in a sparsely populated region. As he had done in the War of the Regulation, he framed the cultural and economic differences between East and West in terms easily under­stood by the frontiersmen.

The Whiskey Rebellion would pit the friends of liberty, some of whom would be dubbed the “Whiskey Boys,” against the friends of order, the federalist government and their “watermelon army,” a term that first appeared in a satirical attack on Federalist supporters in the Pittsburgh Gazette, in which “Captain Whiskey” opined, “Brothers, you must not think to frighten us with fine arranged lists of infantry, cavalry and artillery, composed of your water­mellon armies from the Jersey shores …. ” The friends of liberty strongly felt the princi­pal task of government should be the protection of the liber­ties of the people; their oppo­nents, the friends of order, feared that the questioning of, or opposition to, government could easily lead to anarchy.

“Captain Whiskey” had been comparing whiskey, the item he said was necessary to induce fighting qualities, with watermelon which he implied was for sissies. In response his opponent, “Jersey Blue” – a New Jersey militiaman – alluded to long knives and swords used to cut watermel­ons, and to cannon balls as a deadly type of watermelon. Historian Leland Baldwin believed that after this satire was published the federal army was popularly known as the Watermelon Army.

Dissent during the Rebel­lion took two forms: extra-legal meetings which produced resolutions against the excise, and a ritualized community censure resulting in chastise­ment or violence to the indi­vidual or his property. The government failed to differen­tiate between the two, causing many to assume that Albert Gallatin and Hugh Henry Brackenridge inspired the riots. The right of political dissent in the form of extra­legal association and a custom of disguising terrorists origi­nated in Cumberland County in 1765, when James Smith and his “Black Boys” tried to halt trade between Philadel­phia merchants and western Indians. In September 1791, Robert Johnson, the first excise officer attacked, described his assailants as dressed in wom­en’s clothes – and not with blackened faces.

The crisis of the Whiskey Rebellion, occurring through­out the western frontier, reached a climax between late July and early August 1794 in Fayette, Westmoreland, Alle­gheny, and Washington coun­ties. Violence erupted when U.S. Marshal David Lennox, accompanied by the despised Supervisor of Collection, Gen. John Neville, delivered a court summons to William Miller, an Allegheny County farmer. Until this time, Lennox had completed his rounds in Cum­berland, Bedford and Fayette counties without incident, but farmers in Allegheny County had heard that government officials were dragging men off to jail in Philadelphia. Conse­quently, they thought another right was being taken away from them – that of fair trial in their own locality. The follow­ing day, a group of armed protesters visited John Neville’s house, demanded his resignation, as well as all the records associated with the tax and its collection. Neville refused. Shots were fired. Five of the rebels fell wounded, and one of them, William Miller’s brother Oliver, died later that day.

On the third day an orga­nized militia of six hundred local citizens, headed by a Revolutionary War hero, James McFarlane, returned to the scene. Neville had secured the aid of his brother-in-law, Maj. Abraham Kirkpatrick, and ten soldiers from Fort Fayette. The group again clamored for Neville’s resignation. He had been hiding in a nearby ra­vine, but his representatives refused to surrender the de­fensive position. Members of Neville’s family were allowed to evacuate, after which in­tense firing began on both sides. During a lull in the fighting McFarlane thought he heard a call for a parley, and stepped from behind a tree. He was immediately shot and killed. This stunned the mili­tia, but they continued to torch buildings on Neville’s prop­erty, all except a few slave quarters. John Neville’s hand­some mansion, one of the finest appointed houses in the West, was the last to be de­stroyed.

The zenith of the Whiskey Rebellion occurred early in August when a military rally was called at Braddock’s Field, presumably to impress and cower the Federalist sympa­thizers in Pittsburgh. About seven thousand armed militia responded to the call, approxi­mately half of the taxable males of the western counties. Although they marched on Pittsburgh, extensive violence was prevented through the efforts of several prominent individuals, including Hugh Henry Brackenridge. President Washington responded by raising more than twelve thou­sand troops from four states to quell the uprising, but instead of further armed resistance, they were greeted only with the mute defiance of “liberty poles” erected along the ar­my’s route. A symbol against tyranny, these poles – usually constructed of spliced timbers – could be hung with an official flag, banners, or homemade standards, most often emblazoned with “Equal taxation and no excise” or “Liberty and Equality.”

Most histories written until well into the twentieth century portrayed the rebels as noth­ing more than rabble with little, if any, respect for private property or law and order. They were equated with the frenzied mobs that wildly roamed the boulevards and streets of Paris during the French Revolution. It seemed only fitting that Washington should raise an army to put down these fomenters of anarchy. However, scholars in recent years have discovered that the rebels did have legiti­mate complaints, and that the insurrection was largely pre­cipitated by miscalculations by leaders on both sides. Also, as many opposed to the excise held various positions in their communities, from govern­ment leaders to farmers and laborers, they were not the lowest segment of society.

While many participants in the rebellion had gained politi­cal and military experience during the American Revolu­tion, the insurrection proved to be a training ground for the later careers of many politi­cians and statesmen. It marked the height of the Federalist Party’s strength, and heralded the career of its greatest spokesman, Alexander Hamil­ton. Antifederalists became Republican leaders; Thomas Jefferson and James Madison would go on to become presi­dents. Others, including Al­bert Gallatin and Hugh Henry Brackenridge, were able to moderate the course of the Whiskey Rebellion and later advance their careers. On the other hand, David Bradford, a rising lawyer, Washington County landowner and, more importantly, leader of the radical faction of rebels, would flee the area upon the advance of the federal army. He lived on a plantation in Louisiana, and never regained political prominence. Most of the local leaders of the rebels remained in the region, and became, or continued as, officials or judges, but many of the com­mon laborers and farmers who participated in the rebellion pushed further west on the frontier in search of the Ameri­can Dream: land and freedom.

Who really were the players in this scheme to centralize governmental control of the country? And who were the major actors in the Whiskey Rebellion? Six of the key indi­viduals were George Washing­ton, Alexander Hamilton, John Neville, Thomas Mifflin, Al­bert Gallatin, John Holcroft, and Hugh Henry Brackenridge.

George Washington, be­loved hero of the American Revolution and first president of the United States, had re­tained the respect and esteem of most of the citizenry – a major factor that would be used with tremendous effect during the march west. Hav­ing dealt with residents of western Pennsylvania since the time of the French and Indian War, Washington had suspicions about their motives and, especially, their loyalty to the nation. He owned exten­sive tracts of land in the Com­monwealth’s western region, and in negotiating with early settlers he had found them to be crude, ignorant, and avari­cious.

The key participant on the Federalist side of the issue was Alexander Hamilton. Washing­ton had recognized his skillful writing as a pamphleteer dur­ing the early days of the Revo­lution and made him his secretary and later an aide-de­-camp. It was not long until Hamilton became Washington’s trusted advisor. A propo­nent of a highly centralized authority, he was appointed Secretary of the Treasury in 1789. And therein lies the real story behind the Whiskey Rebellion!

Alexander Hamilton’s scheme for reducing the na­tional debt included an excise on distilled spirits. It was Hamilton who decided in 1792 that the law would be tested in western Pennsylvania. Con­gressman William Findley, an Antifederalist, immediately recognized Hamilton’s plot to use western Pennsylvanians to set a precedent, and advised them to take moderately guarded action. Although the tax could not be collected on the frontiers of the Carolinas, Virginia, and Kentucky, the success of armed suppression in these areas was not as se­cure as in Pennsylvania.

The key Federalist partici­pant in the west was, of course, Gen. John Neville, originally a native of Virginia who had served with distinc­tion in the Revolutionary War. After the war he settled in western Pennsylvania where he owned much property and established a distillery. Wash­ington appointed him Inspec­tor of Revenue for the western counties, and until that time he had been popular and re­spected in the region. Neville’s role during the rebellion was not only to be a conduit of information to the federal government in Philadelphia, but also to obstinately keep the excise offices open. His refusal to resign his commission not only resulted in the deaths of Oliver Miller, Jr., and James McFarlane (and the destruc­tion of his own property), but set the stage for a large scale insurrection. Had he acquiesced – as had Maj. John Huling when confronted by a disguised resistance mob in Carlisle – the insurrection possibly would have lost its momentum early on. Neville belonged to the small, influen­tial group in western Pennsyl­vania which stubbornly supported the excise, distin­guishing the region from other frontier areas where no group adhered to the law.

Thomas Mifflin, Pennsylva­nia’s governor during the Whiskey Rebellion, appears to have been caught between the rebels and the Federalists. His indecisiveness was no match for Hamilton’s relentless thrust for power and, consequently, the defense of states’ rights gave way to federal power during this bitter contest.

Albert Gallatin of Fayette County openly protested the excise tax. Elected to the state legislature in 1790, Gallatin served as clerk of the August 1792 meeting convened in Pittsburgh to rectify the excise law. The meeting drew the wrath of George Washington who exhorted, “I shall exert all the legal powers with which the executive is invested, to check so daring and unwar­rantable spirit.” In his address to Pennsylvania’s House of Representatives in January 1795, Gallatin characterized his part in the conference as “his only political sin.” He further explained his convictions. “The sentiments thus ex­pressed were not illegal or criminal; yet they were violent, intemperate, and reprehensible. For by attempting to ren­der the office [of excise collector] contemptible, they tended to diminish that respect for the execution of the laws which is essential to the maintenance of a free govern­ment.”

Gallatin played a decisive moderating role in the Whis­key Rebellion during August and September. He effectively blocked Bradford’s proposals at Parkinson’s Ferry and, after a speech of some hours at Redstone, he carried the battle for submission to the laws. With that the Whiskey Rebel­lion was essentially broken, but the Westerners now had to fear the Federal army instead of the rioters. Feelings in the army ran high against Gallatin since he had been a prominent leader of opposition to the excise law.

John Holcroft, also known as “Tom the Tinker,” was one of the leaders of the violent rebels. Since the shooting up of any distilling operation came to be known as “mend­ing the still;’ and a tinker was an itinerant peddler who mended pots and pans, the moniker seemed appropriate. A native of Connecticut, Holcroft was living in the Mingo Creek area of Washing­ton County by the 1780s. A militia leader, Holcroft led an armed group to Neville’s house the day Miller was killed. The signature of “Tom the Tinker” became known throughout the Common­wealth, because it appeared on broadsides and in newspaper advertisements to warn citi­zens not to obey the excise legislation.

The satirical writer and politician, Hugh Henry Brack­enridge, acted as a mediating force in the Whiskey Rebellion and, although he appears to have been duplicitous on occa­sion, he actually sought what was best for the western coun­try. Brackenridge served the important and dangerous role of intermediary between government authorities and tax protesters. He was suspected and hated by the extremes of both sides. He was in danger of either losing his life as a traitor to the friends of liberty, or being charged with treason by the federal government. He tried to vindicate his role in the Whiskey Rebellion in his work entitled Incidents of the Western Insurrection, printed in 1795.

The fate of the Westerners was evidently sealed before the United States’ and the state’s commissioners met with rebel representatives, and before the people voted to submit to the legislation. The Federalists believed a display of force was necessary to show the Westerners, as well as the world, that they were commit­ted to a lasting union.

On September 19, federal troops left Philadelphia for the West. New Jersey’s troops, under Gov. Richard Howell, and Pennsylvania’s forces, led by Governor Mifflin, arrived at Carlisle on October 3. The troops would linger in Carlisle because riotous assemblies had taken place when liberty poles had been erected on the town square in early Septem­ber. An innocent civilian had been killed on the steps of a distillery in Middlesex, just east of the town.

The mood of the townspeo­ple changed with the appear­ance of George Washington on October 14. He was given a royal welcome by troops and citizens alike. The entire road ahead would become a seem­ingly endless civic stage as the troops headed west, perhaps the first and only parade across the Commonwealth. In Chambersburg “the people were at their doors and the president acknowledged their salutations as he rode along the streets on horseback fol­lowed by his black servant carrying a large portmanteau.”

Washington accompanied the troops as far as Bedford where they were joined by forces from Maryland. Wash­ington’s last tasks at Bedford included the reviewing of troops and the charging of Gov. Henry Lee of Virginia with the command of the assembled forces for the re­mainder of the expedition. His responsibilities completed, Washington returned to Phila­delphia. By October 24, the troops had entered Pittsburgh, and small detachments of troops were stationed at known trouble spots. On the rainy night of November 13, since dubbed “the Dreadful Night,” one hundred and fifty men allegedly associated with the protest were routed from their beds and herded into squalid prison quarters. About twenty were marched to Phila­delphia to be imprisoned until their trials began the following May.

For the time being, the theory of regionalism had lost. Those idealistic revolutionaries of 1776, now Federalists, were, ironically, acting as conserva­tives, taking the same position as their Tory predecessors. The western rebels voiced the ideology of self-interest that had been advanced by most segments of America in the days of the Revolutionary War. The Federalists would con­tinue in power for years, but the Whiskey Rebellion was the turning point in the careers of Thomas Jefferson, James Mad­ison, and Albert Gallatin, all of whom would come to power in 1801 with Jefferson’s elec­tion to the presidency. The excise was repealed the follow­ing year.

At Mingo Creek Presbyte­rian Church, which stood in the heart of the excise protest, Capt. James McFarlane’s grave was dressed and a tombstone placed on it in 1798. This large, flat tombstone, cut in, and hauled from, Pittsburgh, cost about the price of one hundred and fifty gallons of whiskey – a pretty penny for the canoniza­tion of a Whiskey Rebellion hero. The stone’s inscription tells much about the time and its people.

He served throughout the war with undaunted courage in the defense of American Independence against the lawless and despotic encroachments of Great Britain. He fell at last by the hands of an unprincipled villain in support of what he supposed to be the rights of his country.

 

The author wishes to acknowledge America’s Industrial Heritage Project of the National Park Serv­ice for the grant awarded to the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission which enabled this study of the Whiskey Rebellion. The Whiskey Rebellion is one segment of the Albert Gal­latin Project, the goal of which is to research and interpret the life and times of Gallatin, as well as his role in, and influence on, southwestern Pennsylvania be­tween 1780 and 1830. This fifty year period coincides with his ownership of property in Fayette County, during which roads were developed, agriculture blossomed and industry took hold in the region. The National Park Service is conducting research on Gallatin and his residence at New Geneva, Friendship Hill, which will result in complete restoration of the historic structure by October 1991.

Albert Gallatin became enamored with the bucolic atmosphere of southwestern Pennsylvania in 1784, and his superior diplomatic talents marked him from the very beginning as a leader of the unaf­fected democracy of the region. His keen political skills and sheer courage in defusing the Whiskey Rebellion carried him to greater roles as Secretary of the Treasury (1801-1814), American Commis­sioner to the Treaty of Ghent (1813-1814), and Ambassador to France (1816-1823) and to Eng­land (1826-1827). During his years as Secretary of the Treasury, Gallatin actively promoted his dream of the democratic and sys­tematic opening up of the national domain for settlement. He also advanced his scheme to “cement the bonds of the Union” by laying the groundwork for the National Road. Consequently, his political ideals and innovative plans effectively – and dramatically – ­changed the course of American history.

 

For Further Reading

Adams, Henry. The Life of Al­bert Gallatin. New York: Peter Smith, 1943.

Baldwin, Leland D. Whiskey Rebels: The Story of a Frontier Uprising. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1967.

Findley, William. History of the Insurrection in the Four West­ern Counties of Pennsylvania. Spartanburg, S.C.: Reprint Com­pany, 1984.

Knight, David C. The Whiskey Rebellion, 1794: Revolt in Pennsylvania Threatens Ameri­can Unity. New York: Franklin Watts, Inc., 1968.

Slaughter, Thomas P. The Whis­key Rebellion: Frontier Epi­logue to the American Revolution. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.

 

Jerry Clouse, a native of Cum­berland County, is a graduate of the University of Kentucky; he is currently completing a master of arts degree in American Studies at The Pennsylvania State Univer­sity. He joined the staff of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission’s Bureau for Historic Preservation in 1988, and the following year began work on the Albert Gallatin Project. With Kate Kauffman, he co-authored an article, “Watts’ Folly,” which appeared in the fall 1989 edition of Pennsylvania Heritage. He is the author of two books, Perry County: A Pictorial History and Briner Family History.